Few Reports Of Russian Withdrawal In Georgia
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The Russians promised to start withdrawing their troops from Georgia today, but there's little to indicate that this is happening. Western leaders have warned Russia that it will pay a diplomatic price if it did not abide by the cease-fire agreement signed with Georgia last week.
Today, some reports suggest the Russians might have reduced their presence in the Georgian town of Gori, although they seem to be controlling an important transportation junction there. NPR's Ivan Watson has managed to reach the western part of Georgia, and he joins us now from the town of Zugdidi. And, Ivan, are you seeing or hearing any signs of a Russian withdrawal there? This is an opposite end of the country from South Ossetia and Gori, right?
IVAN WATSON: It is. And, Renee, there have been no signs of a Russian withdrawal. A Russian military patrol just passed by here in the downtown area of Zugdidi. In fact, on the drive up along the Black Sea coast to get here, there were two abandoned Russian vehicles just left on the side of the road. I presume they may get picked up at some point.
Last night, residents of the port town of Poti, they said that there were Russian soldiers at the outskirts to that town. That's south of here. And I've put in a few calls around Tbilisi and the town of Gori, and people have said that they have seen no signs that the Russians are pulling out of entrenched positions that they've set up along the key east-west highway that links the country.
MONTAGNE: Is western Georgia then cut off from the capital and the rest of the country?
WATSON: Absolutely. The main highway that links this country is cut off by Russian troops, who have set up checkpoints. So that's blocked vehicular traffic. In addition to that, there was a mysterious explosion on Saturday, Renee, that Moscow has denied any responsibility for. Basically, it was a huge bomb that blew up a 20-foot span of a large bridge, a railroad bridge, that runs parallel to the highway.
Railroad workers told me that about 50 trains a day pass over that bridge. And between the highway being blocked by Russian soldiers and this mysterious explosion which the Georgian government has blamed on the Russians, that has basically created a blockade of the Georgian capital. And it's extended further, because the neighboring republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia also rely on this route for trade - for the export of Azerbaijani oil and for the delivery of supplies, everything from groceries and foodstuffs to energy products - to neighboring Armenia.
MONTAGNE: So how did you manage to get there today?
WATSON: We came on a Georgian military helicopter. That's basically the only way to get back and forth from the capital to the western parts of this -what's really a small country. And as we flew very low over mountains and through gorges and over farmland, we passed another Georgian military helicopter coming the opposite direction.
So this is being used the main way to link the country up. I spoke with a European diplomat yesterday, Renee. He said that already, he's seeing signs of the civilian administration here in the western part of the country is starting to break down with no direct links to the Georgian capital right now. It's not clear whether or not that is an intentional consequence right now of the Russian strategy to occupy the main road linking the country together.
MONTAGNE: And, Ivan, just briefly, you're there in the west near another separatist region: Abkhazia. But it's looking more and more - the Russians have certainly said this - that Abkhazia or that South Ossetia is not going to go back under Georgian control. So has the government of Mikhail Saakashvili really taken a hit on this?
WATSON: Well, one of the successes that he had had was helping to centralize Georgia, which really went through a decline in the 1990s. There's a nearby region called Ajaria, and one of Saakashvili's first successes was to kick out a local baron who was pushing for independence and autonomy and to bring that back under Tbilisi. Now, that region has been cut off again from Tbilisi. And if this situation continues, Renee, it puts to risk the centralization, the Georgian state itself, whether it can continue to exist.
MONTAGNE: Ivan, thank you for keeping us up on this.
WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from the town of Zugdidi, in western Georgia.
INSKEEP: You're hearing him on NPR's MORNING EDITION, the program that keeps you in touch with the world.
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